From the Library: Music at the Crystal Palace

Built of the mate­ri­als that housed the Great Exhi­bi­tion of 1851 in Hyde Park, the Crys­tal Palace at Syden­ham cost no less than a mil­lion and a half ster­ling. It is com­posed entire­ly of glass and iron, and was designed by Sir Joseph Pax­ton. The Palace from its lofty emi­nence is vis­i­ble for miles in every direc­tion. Its prin­ci­pal hall, or nave, is 1,608 feet long, while the cen­tral transept is 390 feet long by 120 feet broad, and ris­es to a height of 175 feet. On either side of the Palace are the water tow­ers, each 282 feet high, and these add great­ly to the gen­er­al effect, best appre­ci­at­ed from the delight­ful grounds, which cov­er in all some 200 acres. Our view shows the Upper Ter­race, the Cen­tral Transept, and the north­ern Water Tow­er.

The Great Exhi­bi­tion brought togeth­er exhibits from around the Empire for a few short months. After that, the ques­tion was what to do with the enour­mous iron and glass con­struc­tion. A cou­ple of years lat­er a group of gen­tle­men found­ed the Crys­tal Palace Com­pa­ny and had it re-erect­ed, enlarged, in Syden­ham, in the parks that for­mer­ly sur­round­ed Penge Palace.

It re-opened in 1854 and sport­ed essen­tial­ly a stand­ing exhi­bi­tion con­sist­ing of a num­ber of “courts” show­ing past civil­i­sa­tions, the prod­ucts of var­i­ous parts of Britain and more, while in the exten­sive park sur­round­ing the build­ing there were foun­tains taller than those at Ver­sailles, and out­door exhibits that includ­ed islands with recre­ations of “extinct ani­mals” such as dinosaurs — which are still there today. You can read about them in this copy of the 1854 Guide­book.

The Palace, regret­tably, is no longer with us as it burned down in a great fire, pos­si­bly fuelled by escap­ing gas from a split pipe, in 1936. Its hey­day was in the lat­ter part of the 19th cen­tu­ry, when the Palace and its gar­dens were vis­it­ed by crowds of peo­ple, gen­er­al­ly arriv­ing by train at one of the two sta­tions.

A recur­ring fea­ture of the Palace was its use as a large con­cert venue, and it was the site of the Han­del Fes­ti­val every year right up to the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Its size was prodi­gious.

Owing to the cir­cum­stance that the Han­del Fes­ti­val is always held at the Crys­tal Palace, the orches­tra in the cen­tral transept of the Palace of Glass is known as the Han­del Orches­tra. It can accom­mo­date no few­er than 4,000 per­sons. The dimen­sions of the transept, which has a diam­e­ter twice as great as that of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathe­dral, can only be realised when it is crowd­ed, as in our pic­ture, which shows in progress the great tem­per­ance fête that is held at the Crys­tal Palace every year. The organ, which is sup­plied with air by hydraulic machin­ery, boasts 4384 pipes, and cost £6,000. The acoustic prop­er­ties of the build­ing are admirable for large vol­umes of sound.No doubt oth­er com­posers were heard there too, and we can imag­ine brass bands in band­stands in the grounds as well as large-scale clas­si­cal con­certs in the Han­del Orches­tra.

Thus today’s pro­gramme attempts to re-cre­ate the atmos­phere in and around the Syden­ham Crys­tal Palace in late Vic­to­ri­an times with selec­tions of clas­si­cal and light clas­si­cal music. You’ll hear plen­ty of Han­del, of course, along with oth­er con­tem­po­rary com­posers such as Mendelssohn, Chopin, and of course Strauss and oth­er Vien­nese com­posers. In addi­tion to orches­tral works, you’ll hear solo piano per­for­mances and you can enjoy the sound of the brass band play­ing con­tem­po­rary dance music. There’s even a cou­ple of excerpts from Gilbert & Sul­li­van along with some of Mr Sul­li­van’s well-known over­tures.

If you would like to learn more about the Syden­ham Crys­tal Palace, you may find this tele­vi­sion pro­gramme of inter­est. And don’t for­get to join us for part 5 of Moon Over Moroc­co at 11am and 7pm SLT (7pm and 3am GMT).

From the Library is pro­duced by Radio Riel in con­junc­tion with the Alexan­dri­an Free Library Con­sor­tium of Sec­ond Life. You can lis­ten to the pro­gramme now at — or click here to link straight to your play­er if your brows­er is set up to do so. Today’s pro­gramme is pre­sent­ed by Elrik Mer­lin.

For more infor­ma­tion on the Alexan­dri­an Free Library, cur­rent exhibits and the work of Con­sor­tium mem­bers in gen­er­al, please vis­it the Alexan­dri­an Free Library web­site, or one of their branch­es in-world.

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